The "Ouch" of the Gospel

Rev. Timothy Tutt, Senior Minister
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
September 8, 2013
The "Ouch" of the Gospel
Luke 14:25-33

“God wants you to be rich.”  Did you know that?  “God wants you to be rich.”  Now before you get carried away, let me say those are not my words.  Let me repeat that, those are not my words, and I do not believe that.  That is the title of a book that was published maybe a decade ago.  And there are all kinds of things wrong with that title, but just keep it in my mind for a moment – “God wants you to be rich” – while I tell you a story…

Earlier this year, a preacher in another part of the country decided he needed a new helicopter.  I’m not sure why he needed a new helicopter.  I don’t what was wrong with his old helicopter.  I’m not sure why he needed the old one.  But anyway, a new helicopter was his need, or so he divined.  So he emailed the members of his congregation and told them that if they gave him $52 toward the cost of his new helicopter, in either 52 days or 52 weeks, God would give them a new car, maybe even a luxury automobile.[i]

Our Stewardship Committee met this morning, and I’m pretty sure that is not going to be part of this year’s stewardship campaign.

Both of those vignettes are examples of the “prosperity gospel.”  A book saying God wants you to be rich and a minister saying that if you give him money, God will give you a new car—those are both examples of what is called the prosperity gospel.

The prosperity gospel, or prosperity theology, is an idea that grew up in popularity in the 1980s and into the 90s that says that God blesses those whom God favors most with material wealth.  If you are faithful, if you live the right way, if you pray correctly, then God will give you money or a new car or God will keep you healthy or make you skinny or whatever it is that you consider to be success.  That’s what prosperity theology teaches.

You may have read in the news lately the story about a measles outbreak being traced to one particular mega-church.   That church operates with idea that if you are good and right, then God will bless you and you will not get sick. So, why be vaccinated for the measles? That’s a waste of time and money – just pray in a certain way or believe a certain idea and God will give you good health.[ii]

David Jeremiah, who is a very conservative religion writer, has called prosperity gospel a   “false appeal” to the “basest of human instincts,” which is greed.[iii]  Cathleen Falsani, a religion writer for The Orange County Register and formerly with The Chicago Sun Times has called the prosperity gospel “heresy.”[iv]  Let me be a bit more direct and say, It’s just garbage.

 I do think God wants us to be whole and well.  And I do think God is present with us when we are ill.   I do not think God wants anyone to be hungry or in harm’s way.  I think God’s vision for humankind is that all people should have food and shelter and well-being and love.  I do not think God cares how much money we make.  I think God cares how we make our money and how we spend our money.  But I do not think God is in the business of giving us new luxury automobiles or other such clap-trap.

In fact, the scripture that we heard read for us today from the Gospel of Luke says quite the opposite.  Jesus is speaking to a large crowd, and he says to them, “Whoever comes to me must hate his family and hate even life itself.  If you want to be my disciple, you must carry a cross.”  Being a disciple is costly, Jesus says.  This bit of teaching ends with Jesus saying, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

That is no prosperity gospel.  That is a poverty gospel.  That is Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa.

 And that is a terrible scripture for Welcome Back Sunday!

 We’ve sent out postcards, we’ve emailed, we’ve called people to say, “Hope you had a great summer.  Look forward to seeing you at church on Sunday.”  Then we show up and this is what we get: Hate your life.  Carry a cross.  Give up all of your possessions.

This is no church growth strategy.  This Jesus does not appear to be so Welcome-Back-y.  This kind of language does not engender warm fuzzy feelings.  This is not a snuggly, I’m-okay-you’re-okay kind of spiritual hot tub where everybody can relax with fancy drinks.

These are hard words that ask us to think, to examine our lives, to question our commitments.  The Jesus we hear in this passage does not care about comfort.  But he does care about challenging that crowd and challenging us to consider how we spend our time, how we spend our energy, how we spend our money.

 And these words are really not so hateful and harsh.  They are really evocative words of great imagination.  They dare to ask, What if…?  What if we really did live as if every other person were more important than we are?  What if we really did live as if every neighbor were more important than the people in our house?  What if we really did give up our striving and our self-importance?

Imagine how beautiful the world would be.  Imagine how lovely your life would be.

 Think for a minute about how much time you spend worrying about money.  Seriously, for just a minute, think about how much time you spend focused on money.  Think about how much time you work to make money.  Think about how much of your time is occupied with paying the bills or buying things.  Think about how much time you devote to spending money.

Imagine if you could give up that time, or get back that time. Imagine if you did not worry about earning a paycheck or buying things or repairing the things you bought that are broken or buying new things.  Imagine what your life would be like if you had that time to spend on caring for other people, being generous to other people. 

 At first glance, these words of Jesus may seem harsh: “Do not love your life.  Take up your cross.  Give up your possessions.” 

Rather than being harsh, I think these words are hyperbolic to lead us to hope: These words paint for us a picture of how life could be, if all of us sacrificed our good for the good of others.

But if hate my life, you may ask, how would I find value?  You would find it in the value bestowed on you by your neighbor or by your spouse or by the person in the pew next to you, because that person would quit focusing on herself or himself and would focus on you.

And if I give up all of my possessions, you may ask, where will I live, how will I clothe myself, what will I eat?  You will eat at the feast of life prepared by your neighbors, by your fellow church members, because – if we were brave enough to dare to live out these words – we would quit hoarding, quit striving for personal satisfaction and instead tend gladly to the needs of those around us.

These words offer us a vision of how generous, how caring, our lives could be.

 I want to take that vision and speak very specifically about two things. 

First, I want to speak very personally about how we communicate with each other.

Second, I want to speak very broadly about issues of war and peace.

 First, about how we communicate.  This vision that comes to us from these words of Jesus reminds us to quit focusing on ourselves and focus on others.  And so I want to address the issue of how we communicate, about how we at Westmoreland communicate, about how we Washingtonians communicate, about how we humans communicate.  I have mentioned this before.  I am intentionally repeating myself because I think it is vital and because this vision from the scriptures calls for it, I think: And that is the idea, the inclination, that we often have to be right.  So let me be a bit more specific:  You don’t have to email every person on every committee with every idea that you have.  And when someone does that, you don’t have to “reply all” with every possible argument and counterargument that may conceivably exist.  I know we live in a town where it’s the norm to want to be right.  And I know we live in a town where every single person is the smartest person that has ever been.  I know that is our cultural expectation.  But it’s okay, when someone expresses an idea or opinion, not to immediately respond with the word, No. 

I have said this before, and I will probably say it again, because I am preaching to myself as much as I am to you, but giving up your possessions, as Jesus said, is often about giving up the possession of self-importance, giving up the desire to impress, giving up the desire to be right.

This vision of a generosity and compassion is not just for society in some general terms.  It is for how we send email and for what we say in a committee meeting and for how you drive and for how you push your cart at the grocery store.

 The second application of this image, of this vision from the scriptures is about issues of war and peace.  Our city, the nation, the world have been gripped this week with the potential of U.S. military strikes in Syria.  These are not simple concerns.  This is serious.  Anytime we begin to talk about bombing and killing other people our hearts should ache.  Some Westmorelanders are involved in those conservations at very high levels.  Please know that I hold you in my prayers.

 Here is the question that comes to me when I ponder this vision from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus is asking that crowd and asking us to bear our cross, to care more for others than for ourselves, to give up our possessions.  Here is the question that I have: Can we give up our possession of old ideas?   We have long-held, tightly-held, strongly-held ideas of how nations should relate and interact.  For as long as humans have been standing upright we have been fighting each other.  II Samuel Chapter 11 says that, “In the spring at the time when kings go out to war…”  War, it seems is one of our oldest possessions, one of our ancient rights. 

Four thousand years ago, the soldiers of Upper Egypt were fighting the soldiers of Lower Egypt on the Nile Delta.

Three thousand years ago, the warriors of Sudas fought on the banks of the Parusni in India. 

Two thousand years ago, the troops of the Yan fought troops of the Han in China. 

A thousand years ago, the Kings of Sweden and Denmark attacked the King of Norway on boats in the Baltic Sea.  At the same time, the Cherokee and the Iriqouis seemed to have been fighting each other on this continent.

Five hundred years ago, Poland was fighting Russia. 

And 150 years ago Confederate Lt. Henry S. Farley fired the opening shot at Ft. Sumter and United States Army Captain Abner Doubleday shot back, beginning the Civil War.

A hundred years ago, the French and the Germans gassed each other in the trenches of Europe. 

Fifty years American soldiers and the Viet Cong engaged in southeast Asia.

Ten years ago, our troops invaded Iraq, while the war in Darfur started.

Last year, Israel launched rockets into Gaza for eight days.

This year, women, men and children are gassed in Syria.

War seems to be our ancient and present possession.  We hold its glory and power and promise very tightly, in high regard. 

What if we were to let it go?  What if we were to release our hold on power and killing and war?   And I mean all of us, President Al-Assad, and the Free Syrian Army and President Putin and the United States Congress and we the people of all the world?  What if we all gave up war and killing?

 The writer of the Book of Hebrews describes a sinful weight that clings to us and slows our way.[v]  What if it is we who are too clingy to the sinful ways of selfishness and death?  What if we could let go, give up, set aside that to which we cling and live into a new vision of how the world could be?

 What if we give up our possession of war, our pretense of power, our certainty of self-righteousness and explore new ways to communicate, to interact, to live?

 Stanley Hauerwas is the son of a bricklayer from Pleasant Grove, Texas.  He is also an ethics professor at Duke University, where he teaches at both the Divinity School and the Law School.  Ten years ago, when we were invading Iraq, Dr. Hauerwas presented an alternative idea.  I’ve shared this image with you before, and I find it so compelling as we contemplate military strikes on Syria that I share it again, knowingly repeating myself.  Instead of invading a country with bombs, what if we invaded them with bread trucks?  What if we gave up our old ideas of war as geo-political normalcy and started giving away bread?

What if, instead of bombs, we dropped bread?  Imagine, instead of tanks, big white Wonder Bread trucks with their red and yellow circles painted on the sides rolling into Syria.

An estimate from the Secretary of Defense says that military strikes in Syria might cots in the “tens of millions of dollars.”  Do you know how many loaves of bread you could buy for just $10 million?[vi]

 Another Christian ethicist, Jonathan Tran, asked some questions about Haurwas’ Wonder Bread assault:  Wouldn’t that make us a laughing-stock? Perhaps more vulnerable to attack?  Wouldn’t millions of dollars of bread be irresponsible?  Yes, yes and yes.  Except, maybe not. we don’t know, because we’ve never tried.

 That kind of alternative is the life to which Jesus called that crowd and to which these words from the Gospel call us.

Hate your life…or at least hate the idea that you are the center of life. 

Take up your cross…bear the burden of sacrifice. 

Give up all that you have…give up the money that preoccupies you, set aside the self-righteousness of certainty, put away the pretense of the perfection of power.

Imagine a new life, a new world of caring and generosity.

 I am sorry that I am not going to promise you a new car this morning, no matter how much money you put in the offering plate.  (Though I do still encourage you to give gladly; you just won’t get a new luxury automobile.)

I’m sorry I can’t say that God wants you to be rich.  (Though I can say that most of us are doing okay anyway in the grand scheme of things.)

I’m sorry if you came to Westmoreland to begin a new church year with hope and excitement and you’ve been met face to face with a scripture of sacrifice.

But I’m glad to invite you to consider the vision set forth in this text. 

I am glad to invite to you imagine a new way to live, to communicate.

I’m glad to invite you to consider a new life, a new world of caring and generosity.

May we respond to that invitation.

Amen.

 [i] Rawstory.com “Texas pastor: Donate to fix my helicopter and get a new car from God,” by David Edwards
Wednesday, June 19, 2013 12:01 EDT.

[ii] Huffingontpost.com “Kenneth Copeland, Texas Televangelist, Under Scrutiny After Measles Outbreak” by Jamie Stengle 08/31/13.

[iii] ChristianityToday,com “Prosperity Theology” Jesus' gospel is a far cry from health and wealth. David Jeremiah | posted 3/06/2012

[iv] WashingtonPost.com  “Worst Ideas of the Decade:  The Prosperity Gospel”

[v] Hebrews 12:1

[vi] Byalor.edu “The Audacity of Hope and the Violence of Peace: Obama, War and Christianity,” Jonathan Tran (T.B. Maston Lecture), Jan 31, 2012.  These few “Wonder Bread paragraphs” merge the ideas of Hauwerwas and Tran.